The numbers taking history at A level and as a degree subject are apparently falling sharply. Digital devices and social media mean that today’s young are often thought of as a ‘here and now’ generation, but this intriguing production challenges that perception. Its young cast (supported by fellow-students soon to graduate from AUB in costume and performance design, make-up for media and performance, and film production) remind themselves and their contemporaries that there is much to learn from the past and that many strands of memory and influence have come together to make us who we are: to realise that is to understand better both ourselves and our place in the wider world.
The piece has been devised by the company and the director, Lee Hart, who writes in his programme notes: “We have listened to the voices of our parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents. We have read their letters, listened to the songs that were the soundtrack to their profoundest moments, held the objects that they left behind for us, remembered the food that they cooked for us.” Such intimate personal involvement gives an extra dimension to the performances of an exceptionally talented cast.
Three characters represent the three strands that run through the play: George, who has a lively back-story but is now held captive by dementia, physical decrepitude and the patronising brightness of the carers in the home in which he lives; Amelia, an Angolan refugee who has undergone unthinkable ordeals but is sustained by the remembered wisdom of her murdered brother; and an unnamed girl, in a bad place emotionally, who is clearing out a loft in the house to which she has just moved. It is the last of these who expresses most clearly the theme of the piece when she wonders, “What makes you you?”
It is played out against an ingenious and most effective set of four panels on which film is projected, or which at times convert the action in front of them into silhouettes. On the upper level, half is the loft and half is Amelia’s kitchen. Most striking is the lighting, because the play makes terrific use of light and dark, emphasising perhaps how the past can illuminate the present. The use of film is no accident, because those who pioneered its documentary use, or took their cine cameras into war zones, were recording history via light. After a scene in a cinema, much of the action is lit only by the sort of torches that old-time usherettes used to wield, which are as effective as any follow-spot and much better for creating an atmosphere. Most striking of all is when the girl in the loft opens an old suitcase and a bright light bursts out of it as she examines – and learns from – its contents.
The sound deserves a mention, too, with atmospheric music appropriately chosen.
Productions created from scratch by students can lapse into pretentiousness and self-indulgence (forgive me if that sounds patronising coming from a greybeard), and in one or two places this production does not avoid those pitfalls entirely. But it is stimulating, interesting, challenging and never for a moment dull. There are further performances at 2.30pm and 7.30pm on 9 November.